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How Much is Enough?
In one of your essays, you mention that it is important for everyone to "learn how to maintain a comfortable and responsible balance between austerity and excess." This is something I grapple with every day. Do you have any suggested questions that I could ask myself when in the midst of decision making that would help me determine if my choices fit somewhere between the two?
When we live in a culture of great abundance, it is easy to be seduced into desiring more - sometimes much more - than we actually need. Aggressive marketing and shrewd product placement can make us feel as though certain goods and services are absolute necessities. Yet when we consider the real necessities of life - food, shelter, clothing, and emotional fulfillment - we can see that often what we crave is superfluous. At the same time, many people in our own town and around the world are lacking the true essentials for survival.
Industrialization, technological advances, and global corporatization have beaten down our basic models of community. We no longer know our neighbors or feel a sense of responsibility toward those less fortunate. Our focus is on ourselves and our interests. The majority of us work too hard and too long and rarely have the energy or time to take pleasure in the simple treasures of life: family, friendship, and the natural world. The pace of technology has driven us to demand instant gratification and ever faster results. We want what we want when we want it - and we always want it right now. As individuals and a society, our nerves are frazzled and our patience is tattered.
To soothe our spirits and fill the emptiness so many of us feel, we have become reliant on material goods and highly stimulating experiences. When so much around us is unfulfilling, the habits of buying something or pursuing an escape can momentarily lift us above the mundane. Unfortunately, things and experiences are fleeting and incapable of providing lasting satisfaction. As a result, once the “thrill” wears off, we begin searching for the next big thing. The practice becomes a never-ending cycle. It is similar to trying to overcome a nutritional deficiency by feasting on doughnuts. No matter how many we consume, the deficit will remain, because regardless of how tasty the doughnuts are, they cannot supply us with what we desperately need.
It can be challenging to distinguish between extravagance and comfort, particularly when being comfortable is our baseline. How do we know when we have enough? It is reasonable to assume that each person’s “enough” is relative and unique. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to dictate anyone’s limits of accumulation. Nevertheless, on a personal level, we each can take responsibility for learning to recognize when our self-indulgence is masked as need.
Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves before diving into a potential spree:
- Am I buying this item (or engaging in this activity) to make me feel better about myself?
- Am I buying this item (or engaging in this activity) to make me look more admirable or important in the eyes of others?
- Am I buying this item (or engaging in this activity) because everyone else is?
- Is this something I honestly need, or do I already have enough?
- Where will I put this item when I get it home?
- Does my heart pound or my mind race when I think about buying this item (or engaging in this activity)?
- Do I feel a sense of urgency about this purchase or activity?
- Does the experience of buying this item (or engaging in this activity) give me a “rush”?
- Will I feel a sense of elation or regret after buying this item (or engaging in this activity)?
- Will the money spent on this item (or time engaged in this activity) detract from more important purchases or activities?
- Will this purchase or activity hurt someone else?
- Is this something I could live without?
- Will I be proud of myself if I walk away from this?
If we distance ourselves from the pressing emotions of the moment, we often discover that what we thought we must have is not so essential after all. A test of whether something is truly necessary is to not act on our urge for a specific length of time. For instance, give yourself twenty-four hours, three days, or even a week or two before deciding. Then revisit the situation, and if you still feel as strongly about it, indulge.
Balance is the threshold between overdoing and underdoing. When we achieve it, we will be equipped to make more fully-informed and well chosen decisions.
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